Why this Public School Advocating Mom is Homeschooling

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I have always been a loyal supporter of public schools. Even before I had school-aged children, I financially supported fundraisers, clipped Box Tops, consistently voted “yes” to educationally-motivated tax hikes, and volunteered at an after-school club.

My public school roots run deep. My mother spent 30 years teaching in public elementary schools. Other family members who taught or still teach at public schools include an uncle, 2 aunts, a cousin, one of my sisters and my sister-in-law. I personally attended public school all the way through high school (with the exception of a miserable 8th grade year spent at a private prep school).

When it came time to send my oldest son to kindergarten, we quite naturally placed him in public school. I immediately became a fixture there. I faithfully attended PTO meetings, volunteered weekly in the classroom, shelved books in the media center, spearheaded fundraisers, and chaperoned field trips…

When his school’s rating dropped and the demographic shifted, we stayed even as many, many others (including most of my neighbors) left. I took this as a sign to redouble my efforts on behalf of the school. I wasn’t just working for the benefit of my 2 sons, but for the sake of ALL the children. As a teacher’s child I knew how much parental support and involvement could encourage teachers and improve the climate of a school.

So what changed, you ask? Why did I decide to leave public school and become a homeschooling mom?

In contrast to many homeschoolers, my decision had very little to do with the quality, safety, ideologies or methodologies of our local public schools. Ultimately, the driving force behind my decision was TIME. Time for me to spend with my children and for them to spend with each other. Time for my sons to pursue their interests and still have a space in each day to run around and play and dream, unfettered.

We were entering a new season as a family. It was time for our oldest to begin middle school, yet we also had an upcoming 4th grader and a 3 year old. I began to envision what the next school year was going to look like:

With 2 rounds of school drop-offs and pick-ups each day, I knew my 3 year old was going to be living a big chunk of her life strapped in the car.

My middle child, stuck between a high-achieving older brother and an adorable baby sister, had had a rough year emotionally. I didn’t know how to help him and worried that the even more hectic schedule on the horizon would only aggravate his distress.

My oldest son, Gabriel, already a talented pianist who practiced an hour a day, had been begging for a year to be allowed to learn the cello (yes, he adores the Piano Guys). I knew the middle school orchestra would allow him to pursue this new dream, but adding another instrument into the mix was going to be a real problem. On his new school schedule, he wouldn’t be getting home until sometime after 4pm. According to my calculations, if he practiced the piano for an hour, spent another 15 or 20 minutes on the cello, and completed his middle school homework (which I suspected was going to take longer than the hour and a half he was already doing each night for 5th grade), he would have just enough time to eat dinner and shower to make it to bed by 9. He would have no time to spend with his siblings, no time to rest, no time to do anything other than music and school work.

I wasn’t ready for my 11 year old to disappear from family life.

As I fretted over the impending school year, a vision began to form. What if we skipped middle school? What if we took this brief hiatus from the school frenzy and spent some focused time as a family? What if we traded the awkward middle school years for a few years of amazing family memories? Why keep adding to the long list of “one day we wills” when we could begin saying “let’s do this now”? Now. Now before my children are swallowed up by the busyness of high school. Now, before they are grown and gone.

One year into homeschooling, I am delighted to report that it has been an even grander adventure than I imagined.

My boys have been able to participate in activities that we never would have had time for otherwise, such as performing with the Sarasota Youth Orchestra, making and maintaining friendships at a local nursing home and providing afterschool homework help one afternoon a week to the children on our El Crucero block.

I have enjoyed discovering the wide range of innovative curriculum available to homeschoolers and connecting with a surprisingly large homeschool community. For instance, last year we joined the local homeschool choir and found a fun group for bi-monthly field trips. This year, Gabriel is excited to be playing on the homeschool basketball team.

As a family, we have been able to learn together in creative and exciting ways. For example, in conjunction with our study of WWII last year, we managed to visit the National WWII museum in New Orleans, tour a WWII era battleship and submarine in Mobile, AL, see WWII era planes at the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, FL, pay our respects at the WWII Memorial in DC, and (thanks to a Groupon) somberly explore a concentration camp in Dachau, Germany. Just as memorably, we have cried together over Corrie Ten Boom’s The Hiding Place, laughed together through Roald Dahl’s Going Solo, and engaged in deep discussion as we read through large excerpts of Anne Franks’ Diary of a Young Girl.

Perhaps most significantly, our time together has strengthened our family unit. Contrary to expectations, my children almost never fight anymore. They have become best friends. Unhealthy comparisons have largely disappeared and they’ve learned to play together and work together as a team.

In the process of homeschooling, I have learned worlds about my boys’ strengths and weaknesses; my boys have learned the joy and reward of self-motivated learning; and my youngest, Celia, has learned patience and how to play by herself when mommy is otherwise occupied.

Nevertheless, as wonderful as homeschooling has proven to be, I still plan to reemerge my boys into public high school. I don’t want to deprive them of such a universal American experience. I value the life lessons to be learned through interaction with teachers and students who are different than they are. I want them to learn how to be true to their own values and beliefs in the midst of a crowd. I want them to be immersed in a microcosm of American society, to recognize both the beautiful and the ugly, to experience both the fun and the pain.

But for now, we get to be together, growing as a family, developing our collective commitment to God, and making beautiful memories.

And, yes, I’m still clipping Box Tops.

The Dilemma of Giving

A note: In the five months since I wrote this post, I have had a chance to better process some of the concerns and questions I raise below. Anyone who regularly ministers to people in the margins will eventually have to decide how they are going to respond to need. As an individual, I have finite resources; and as much as I wish I could alleviate all of the suffering around me, I can’t. I believe in sacrificial giving (of money and time), but I also fully believe that investing in another person is much more complicated and difficult than simply handing over money. I work with children, children who live in significantly more deprived circumstances than my own children but who are also used to looking to strangers to give them a huge assortment of free services and items. Many of them have both a mother and a father, who I fully believe want to provide for their needs and would rather their children look to them for support than to the rich white interlopers who descend on their neighborhood. And, yes, I realize that I arrived as just such an interloper. I recognize and struggle with this conundrum. Truly, though, I am now no longer a stranger…I’m their bible teacher, their tutor, and their friend….a children’s minister in the neighborhood church plant, serving under the leadership of a Hispanic pastor. I realize I have SO MUCH left to learn, but I am praying and I’m trying….trying to be respectful and responsible, quick to listen and observe, slow to make judgment. And by God’s grace, I know that I am where I am supposed to be.

 

Since entwining my life with the children of El Crucero, I am frequently asked for financial help. It has become a real dilemma for me. By nature, I like to give away money and things, so saying “yes” to all reasonable requests could easily be my default setting. You need some modeling clay to finish a school project? No problem. You’ve outgrown your tennis shoes? Sure, I’ll buy you a pair. Your parents really can’t make the electric bill this month? OK, I’ll pay it. You get the idea. But where does it stop? I have not found it easy to define and establish healthy parameters.

In his book, Toxic Charity, Robert Lupton practically screams at us that misplaced generosity can hurt the recipients more than it helps by “diminishing the dignity of the poor while increasing their dependency.” According to Lupton, the first 2 rules of “The Oath for Compassionate Service” are to “never do for the poor what they have (or could have) the capacity to do for themselves” and to “limit one-way giving to emergency situations.” Outside of real relationship (and often inside relationship), it can be difficult to determine when and how to responsibly provide assistance.

For me, the issue becomes: How do I look a child in the face, a child who I love, and tell them I won’t help when it is well within my power to supply their need? How can I know when is it appropriate to say “yes”?

I’d like to use 2 real-life examples to illustrate the complexity of this frequently encountered dilemma:

Story # 1:

The parents of 3 young siblings who faithfully attended El Crucero split up, and the mom and children moved into a tiny apartment. The apartment did not come with any appliances, and the children came to church one night asking for a refrigerator. I decided to take this as an opportunity to meet their mother. I confirmed that she had a job, but no resources for obtaining such a large item. Then, I promised to see what I could do.

About a week later, another El Crucero leader and I joined together to meet this need, hoping it would be the beginning of a relationship with the mom. However, the request quickly grew to include a stove, a table, a bed for one of the kids, and an air-conditioning window unit. The mom didn’t speak any English and we couldn’t speak much Spanish, so the relationship wasn’t progressing as we had hoped.

On the flip side, we knew the children very well and wanted to demonstrate to them that we cared about them….that it mattered to us that they have a place to store and cook food, a place to sleep and a refuge from the stifling Florida heat.

Since there was no dad in the picture at this point, I rationalized that helping their mom was something like helping a widow. Ultimately, though, providing all of these things seemed to only widen the chasm between us and the mother instead of bringing us into relationship, as I had hoped. I was left wondering how we could have handled the situation better.

Story # 2:

My husband and I were excited last summer to learn that one of our core 5th grade girls was planning to attend middle school at the free performing arts charter school. We knew she liked to dance and had been on her elementary school’s dance team.

However, as the new school year approached, this girl began to appear depressed; and we learned that her parents had told her they couldn’t afford to send her to the charter school after all due to the cost of the school uniform and the fee to be on the dance team. Her only alternative was to attend her districted middle school which is probably the worst in our county, with an “F” rating and a high incidence of violence.

We talked with her parents and offered to sponsor her. We would pay for her uniform and dance fees. In return, we expected to be invited to her dance performances and planned to keep tabs on her grades. We were deeply humbled to realize that the small sum of $130 could potentially mean such a difference in the trajectory of this child’s future.

For the first half of the year, we saw this girl often. Shortly after Christmas, though, her entire family began attending a Spanish-speaking church elsewhere in town. We were delighted that her parents were now going to church, but we largely lost touch with them at this point. At the very end of the school year we received a last-minute text inviting us to a dance performance, but we already had another commitment and couldn’t go.

Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago when this family reached out to us saying that the mom has lost her job due to childcare issues (the youngest of their 5 children is only a year old), and they don’t have money for school shoes and supplies for any of their children. Before my husband and I could decide how to proceed, we received another phone call to tell us that this family hasn’t been able to make rent and is being evicted. Obviously, this is a much bigger problem, with a medley of issues to investigate and address: childcare, job procurement, money management, possibly the need for alternate housing…… How are we to navigate such a situation? We don’t want this family on the streets, yet we don’t want to swoop in and advance an unhealthy relationship built on need and dependence, either.

Pushing against the Wind

Further complicating the dilemma of giving is the fact that the children on my block are being raised in a culture of receiving. Due to the generosity of churches and civics clubs, as well as the implementation of government programs, these children are perpetually being given hand-outs: two separate churches pass out free pancakes (and clothing) on alternating Saturdays, the school board sends a meal truck into the block all summer to distribute free lunches on weekdays and a bag of non-perishables to take home on the weekends, a 3rd church comes to do a weekly book giveaway, the Elks club hosts parties to give away backpacks full of supplies in August and Christmas toys in December….The list goes on and on……

I worry that my El Crucero children are growing up feeling like charity cases. I also worry that they are developing an unhealthy idea about how the world works. I don’t know how all this giving affects their parents’ sense of dignity or personal initiative, but I can’t believe it is having a positive impact. I glimpse fathers who prefer to stay hidden and mothers who avoid making eye contact, while their children are sent as the conveyors of requests big and small.

How do I inspire dreams for the future in such an environment? How do I teach personal responsibility and the value of hard work? My heart broke a few weeks ago when I saw a girl who I thought had everything going for her show up at the food truck with a boyfriend and a baby. Instead of finishing high school, she’s depending on handouts for daily survival.

I desperately want to use my own giving in ways that empower my El Crucero children rather reducing them to objects of charity. But how?

THE BEGINNING, PART 2: I Sure Hope God Sends Someone

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I absolutely believe that God will use anybody who makes him or herself available. In my own experience, every time I’ve honestly drawn close to God, He has given me something to do.

In my last post, I told the story of how God gave my young son a desire to buy bibles for his new friends on our adopted block and then transformed his $6 into 48 brand new children’s bibles. While I had played only a very tiny role in this, I began to feel a very strong responsibility in connection with it.

For a year now, I had been spending one morning a month blowing bubbles and drawing chalk pictures with the youngest Hispanic children on the block, while attempting to enter into conversation with the older ones. I had hit the brick wall of trying to communicate with adults who spoke absolutely no English. I had observed some of the poverty, had seen how young many of the mothers were, how big the families, and how unattended the children. I had heard about the gangs and the drugs, had seen the frequent police drive-bys; and I knew that blowing bubbles wasn’t helping anyone.

While I was touched that my son wanted all of the children to have bibles, I knew these bibles would most likely end up discarded in some corner, un-read and forgotten. Even if some of these children did decide to give this massively thick and daunting book a try, I knew that they would have no way to process what they were reading. Perhaps an especially studious child might make it through Genesis and Exodus, but what on earth would he make of Leviticus?

Still….. God’s hand was so clearly evident in the provision of the bibles. Surely, this was His doing. But in both my mind and my heart, I knew that simply handing out bibles wasn’t good enough. Someone needed to show the children what to do with the bibles, how to read them, what they mean, why they are so important. Someone.

I really didn’t want that someone to be me. I had a 15-month-old baby girl who had just finally been weaned. I had a schedule already full of PTO commitments (I was both the Box Tops Coordinator and Board Secretary), ministry commitments (I was leading music at a weekly Kids Live Club, running a monthly book group, attending a weekly bible study, working extended session at church, helping out at Adopt-a-Block), and parental commitments (juggling piano lessons, basketball practices, orthodontist appointments….). Clearly, I didn’t have time to start a ministry to these children that I didn’t really know, who lived in a neighborhood I really didn’t understand, and with whose parents I couldn’t communicate.

And yet…..I couldn’t stop thinking about how much there needed to be a someone.

About this time, I learned of a Hispanic man named Andy A. who was planning to start a Spanish church service right there on our block. He had gotten permission to use a small AME church for two hours each Sunday night, the very same AME church whose grass-filled parking lot we used for our impromptu soccer matches during our community pancake breakfasts. Andy had begun coming to our Adopt-a-Block breakfasts to play his guitar and to get to know some of the residents. As it turns out, he was dreaming of a children’s service to go along with his adult service, a children’s service that sounded surprisingly similar to what I had been envisioning in those moments I had allowed myself to contemplate the “what if.”

Andy needed someone to lead this children’s service.

I began to wonder if that someone was me. While one part of me began to dream about stepping up and “making a difference,” most of me was screaming, “Don’t be crazy. Your life is stressful enough. How can you commit to lead something EVERY WEEK? You’d have no support system, no church full of helpers, no one to fall back on in an emergency. Your kids are always sick. You have a son who becomes violently ill with the flu every single year and sometimes twice, no matter what precautions you take. You get migraines…A LOT. You have a BABY! You have a husband who travels. It is IMPOSSIBLE!”

So I began to pray. I told God I didn’t want to join up with Andy and start a children’s service, but if He wanted me to do it, I would. I am a firm believer that God wants us to know his will, so, like Gideon, I put out a fleece. If God sent someone to directly ask me to be the children’s leader, I would say yes, but I was not going to put myself forward in any way. (To put it bluntly, there was no way on earth I was going to just step up and volunteer.) The request would have to come unsought.

Then, one Thursday evening in July, quite out of the blue, I received a text sent on the behalf of Andy. He wanted to know if I might be willing to be the children’s leader for his Sunday service and could I possibly start that coming Sunday.

Here was God’s undeniable response to my prayer. What answer could I give, except for “yes”?

Let me return to where I started this post: Every time I’ve honestly drawn close to God, He has given me something to do. I’m sure it is no coincidence that my girlfriends and I were studying the book of James that summer. Few books in the bible give a stronger message about the direct correlation between what we do and how much we truly value our relationship with God than James. It is in James that we are instructed to be “doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves” (1:22); and where we are emphatically told that “anyone who knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, commits sin” (4:17). Furthermore, James uses the example of how we treat the poor to make his case: “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (2:14-17). For us middle-class Americans, rich by all worldly standards, we should be deeply troubled by the dichotomy James establishes between the rich (“in the midst of a busy life, [the rich] will wither away” [1:11]) and the poor (“God has chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him” [2:5]). Ouch! Are we expending our lives in self-centered busyness or are we linking our lives with those who are positioned to be “rich in faith”?

Would you believe that I received Andy’s text as I was on my way out the door to go to bible study? By the end of that same night, I had my volunteers in place for the coming Sunday. My friends, Lacey, Becca G., Becca B., and Jill (as well as my husband, Cliff, Lacey’s husband, Aaron, and Becca B.’s mom, Hazel) joined me at the beginning and are still helping me today. God also sent a new set of friends, Denise and Martin, to El Crucero, right at its inception.

Certainly, I’ve needed all the help I could find. Since that first Sunday more than 2 years ago, we’ve had about 150 children (between the ages of 4 months and 16 years old) pass through El Crucero. We’ve split into an elementary school group and a separate middle school group. On our biggest nights, we’ve had close to 80 children. They mostly come on their own. We rarely see the parents. The older girls are generally charged with the care of their younger siblings, so we always have a few toddlers in the mix. My husband has become something of the Pied Piper of the neighborhood, gathering children off the streets for church on Sunday evenings. The children at the core of our group no longer need to be gathered, though. They are waiting on the steps of the church when we arrive at 5pm to begin setting up. Bibles in hand, they race up to our car before we even get fully parked, arms wide for hugs. I’m tearing up as I write about it. There is quite a bit of flux in the children that come, but every week I drive up and feel like I’m being reunited with my own kids.

The journey has already been filled with some amazing emotional highs, as well as some seasons of discouragement, exhaustion, and frustration. Over time God has trimmed away most of my other commitments, making El Crucero my primary ministry outside of my own home and family. It’s a journey I expect and hope to be on for many, many years to come, God willing. I hope to see these children grown, and I deeply desire to be allowed to encourage, advise and assist them along the way.

THE BEGINNING, PART 1: A Boy, a Block, and Some Bibles

IMG_0833My El Crucero journey began in the spring of 2012, when my adult Sunday School class committed to serve in a particularly drug and gang-infested neighborhood a few miles away from our church. Many of the adults in this neighborhood are non-English-speaking Hispanics and most everyone is (by American standards) extremely poor. Our class’s entry into the neighborhood was through what is known as an “Adopt a Block” program. My husband, Cliff, and I, and our 3 children began spending one Saturday morning a month serving breakfast, playing soccer, leading devotionals, and just “hanging out” with members of this neighborhood. Many unchaperoned children would join us on these mornings. Unlike the adults with whom they live, the children speak fluent English since that is what they use in school.

Over the course of that first year, my boys (Curran, then age 6, and Gabriel, then age 9) formed some friendships with the neighborhood boys. Somewhere along the way, Curran decided he wanted these friends to have bibles. About one year into our participation in this “Adopt-a-Block” ministry, my then seven-year-old-Curran, announced that he was starting a bible fund so that he could buy bibles for the neighborhood children. Curran became consumed with this idea, talking about it day and night.

To start the fund, he put in all the money he currently possessed, which was $6. Then he started daydreaming about ways to fundraise. Since at that time I was on the PTO board at his school, and he frequently saw me involved in secular fundraising, his daydreaming quickly turned to trying to brainstorm incentives and prizes for donating. I stopped him, though, and told him that we don’t have to fundraise for God’s work the way the non-Christian world raises money for things. I explained to him that if God had really placed it on his heart and mind to give bibles to the kids on our adopted block, God would be faithful to provide the resources. So, I encouraged him to begin by praying for God’s provision. I also made sure he understood that God wants to be the provider so that we don’t get puffed up and take credit for what has really been done by Him (always a good reminder for myself, too).

I did give him permission to sell little pieces of artwork and to let people know what he planned to do with the money. Otherwise, I stayed completely uninvolved. Little did I know that Curran was handing out “business cards” at school (a public school, mind you) trying to sell his artwork for bible money. I was flabbergasted when he came home one day with a $20 bill in his pocket donated by the PE coach at school. And then some of our family members contributed…..and then we sold one of his toys on Craig’s list…..and suddenly he had enough money to buy 2 cases (12 per case) of children’s bibles online.

We ordered the bibles with an expected arrival of 1-2 weeks, but Curran wanted them to come in time to pass out at our next monthly breakfast which was barely a week later. He began praying they would get here in time. At his weekly after-school Bible club, he raised his hand during the prayer request time to ask for prayers that the bibles would come before Saturday. The bibles actually arrived that same day (only 5 days after we ordered them).

The next day I got a phone message from the bible company telling me that they had accidentally sent our order to 2 different warehouses and we’d be mistakenly receiving a double fulfillment of our order. When I returned the call to confirm with them that I’d reject the 2 extra cases, I had to explain who I was (since the order was placed in Curran’s name). Then I thanked them for how quickly the bibles had arrived and what an answer to prayer that had been and why. About an hour later I received another phone message telling me that the president of the company (Bibles by the Case) had decided that we should keep the extra 24 bibles, free of charge, for Curran to give out at the block party.

And so God turned a 7-year-old’s $6 into $300’s worth of brand-new children’s bibles for the children on our adopted block. It was an exciting answer to prayer, but it was also the start of something much bigger……..

Continue reading: The Beginning Part 2: I Sure Hope God Sends Someone

Rumblings and Stumbling Blocks

I join many other voices when I say that we live in a world of haves and have nots. I’m not sure there are many middle class Americans who would deny this. But how many of us have any conception of what this really means? How can we? Have we seen the disparity with our own eyes? Have we lived on both sides of the equation? Even for those who have had seasons of financial struggle, have any of us ever gone to the brink of death because we can’t get a single glass of clean water? Have we lost a loved one to a simple fever? Have we ever had to go barefoot for lack of shoes, or live with creepy crawlies living in our skin, or watch our babies die because we have nothing to feed them?

We read about such things. We see them in the news and in movies, and perhaps shed a tear of compassion or cringe with horror and disgust. But then we head to our kitchens to make a cup of coffee and have a snack. Maybe we give our children an extra hug, remembering for that brief moment to be grateful that they are healthy and safe. Perhaps we believe we are somehow making a tiny dent in the world’s problems by dropping off a bag of food at the local food drive or handing a homeless veteran $5 out the car window.

Within the Christian community, many books have cropped up in the past few years intended to start a conversation about the poor in the world and our responsibility toward them. Books that I have read on the subject include: Radical by David Platt, Interrupted by Jen Hatmaker, and Anything by Jennie Allen, as well as such personal narratives as Kisses from Katie by Katie Davis and Same Kind of Different as Me by Denver Moore and Ron Hall. There has also been a recent slew of books about how to live out that responsibility responsibly (i.e. effectively and without doing harm), most notably including Toxic Charity by Robert Lupton and When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. But, fellow Christians, where are these conversations leading us? What have we changed? What are we doing to engage the poor (those impoverished not only physically, but spiritually and emotionally, as well) in meaningful ways? What real sacrifices are we making?

Let me ask the harder question: Why have we not all found a desolate part of our community and integrated ourselves into it? Is it because we don’t know how to begin? Is it because we are afraid for our safety or that of our family? Is it because we fill ill-equipped to help?

Perhaps it is because we don’t have time (what with all our kids’ ball games and music lessons, our New Year’s commitment to go faithfully to the gym 3 times a week, and all that great prime time TV programming). Or maybe, in truth, we simply don’t care about the largely invisible poor in our cities, in our country, in the world……at least not enough to trade a chunk of our comfort and freedom for theirs.

Almost daily, I wrestle with these questions.

Two years ago I made a commitment. I made it quickly, but with a conscious awareness that it would require a fair amount of sacrifice and a whole new level of faith. How much sacrifice and how much faith I didn’t know (and still don’t), but the decision really boiled down to whether I was going to answer a very direct question from God with a yes or a no. I answered “yes” and so my involvement with El Crucero Iglesio began. Little did I know that I would soon feel as if I had adopted an entire community of children….that I would love them so fiercely and feel so much heartbreak because I have so little control over their lives.

I have decided to start a blog for several reasons. First, I want to record this journey so that I don’t forget the details, joys and struggles along the way. Secondly, I long to enter into conversation with others on the subject of ministry to the poor and community development and am hoping this forum opens a door for such conversations. Finally (and perhaps most urgently), I need an outlet for the often consuming thoughts, struggles and emotions this ministry has grown up in me.

I realize that I have not yet explained what El Crucero is or how I’m involved. In my next post I will start at the beginning….